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A Gentle Plea for Insulation

climate change design, Super InsulationJamie Purnell4 Comments

A Snowy Day Reveals Our Insulation Weaknesses

We’ve been enjoying (for the most part) some snowy days here in the Maritime Northwest - currently, about ten inches are kind of melting on the ground, and the local streets have been plowed to a nice thick layer of white ice by our crews of well meaning (but not very experienced) snow plows.

Aside from the snow highlighting how unusual it is for us to get snow up here in our corner of the world it also shows off one of the shameful secrets many of us share…and that’s poor insulation.

If you go about neighborhoods after a decent snowfall, no matter where you live in North America, I’ll wager you’ll see the evidence as well. Roofs that should be completely covered with the white stuff if well insulated show instead our incredible failure to properly insulate. Sometimes it just runs along the ridge and eaves, highlighting that it can be hard to adequately stuff good amounts of insulation into those nooks and crannies without extra care. Perhaps a whole roof is looking pretty empty of snow or there are giant icicles hanging from the eave and a lot of snow sliding off the roof. All of these situations are common and point to lame insulation strategies. The snow gives some visual on where the heat being used inside is going: when insulation r-values are poor or insulation is not properly installed, heat will head right out of a building, especially a roof. Unimpeded by insulation, it will be so warm when it hits the cold air outside that it clears the roof of snow.

This wintry visual is also a good way to understand why not insulating and finishing homes properly inside and out can cause mold to grow in walls and ceilings. Condensation forms when the warm interior air hits a cold exterior surface. If moisture cannot escape, it will get moldy in time.

Insulation is SEXY! (How come no one believes me).

We have always been insulation and energy enthusiasts (we actually remind one another that at social gatherings and agree not speak about insulation for more than 5 minutes maximum lest we divest ourselves of all friendships!). We haven’t started out with heads full of knowledge and over the years have really learned a great deal about how to insulate well and where we can continue to improve. We still have improvements to achieve. In our next build we will achieve near passive house insulation, air-sealing & performance levels. But something sad we have noticed over the years is that people are not really interested in insulation. I say that without compunction because in our experience it’s been true no matter where we’ve lived. Certainly people LIKE the idea but simply won’t pay for it. It is the “most unkindest (budget) cut” of all, as perhaps even Julius Caesar would agree. Why wouldn’t people want to pay for something that makes a more comfortable, less expensive product easy to enjoy? I think it is because insulation can’t be seen - it’s just not exciting or showy the way a soaking tub or a shiny range is. It’s really time to rethink this faux pas.

We lived in Maine and sold a house we built there in 2009. Oil prices the previous years had reached historic highs and fuel oil for homes was over $4.00 per gallon. In Maine (and elsewhere, really), huge drafty homes are the norm rather than an anomaly, and there were plenty of people truly hurt by the high oil costs. Theft from people’s tanks became an issue, and people who were already spending a ton of money every year on heating were paying almost twice as much. And yet, by the time we sold a year or so after the gas crisis had eased, no one really cared that we had used highly efficient spray foam insulation in the house - which kept our heating fuel costs minimal (literally fractions of what neighbors were spending) and also kept the home cool in the summers. People sounded interested, for certain, but weren’t inclined to pay any extra for the value added to the home. Shawn and I were amazed by this oversight…they would mention another home at a “better price point” as if we should be swayed by the argument. Our thought was heavily influenced by our knowledge that a better performing house is more comfortable, saves a ton of money right off the bat and especially over time, and is worth paying for.

The Climate Needs YOU to Pay Attention to your Insulation Strategy!

Here’s another reason to hyper insulate. A recent article I read indicated that use of fossil fuels in the US this past year were up after several years of declines. I anticipated this was from renewed use of coal. Boy, was I wrong. From the article:

“In the United States, emissions of carbon dioxide are projected to increase 2.5 percent in 2018 after a decade of declines. Culprits for the increase include unusual weather -- a cold winter in Eastern states and a warm summer across much of the nation ramped up energy needs for seasonal heating and cooling -- as well as a growing appetite for oil in the face of low gas prices.”

Please don’t underestimate the degree to which our homes can be major carbon emitters, especially as seasonal extremes become more and more “normal.”

A New Attitude Toward Insulation Is Needed Now

The above article is a clarion call regarding insulation standards in North America. I can’t speak for code requirements in other parts of the world as I’m unfamiliar with them, but in North America, we have a huge way to go, despite some recent improvements to energy codes in various parts of the US and Canada. Washington, for example, has upgraded its energy code and even requires blower door tests now to confirm that homes are meeting a reasonable amount of air tightness. But there’s so far to go in terms of making our houses truly tight, high functioning homes that protect us from the elements but don’t contribute to carbon emissions so heavily. We recently watched a video that described current homes as being more akin to “factories” in terms of their emissions, and we might do well to start considering that metaphor. While we’re encouraged (kind of) to be mindful of our carbon footprints, rarely is there much more than lip service being paid. When stricter mandates are put in place we might achieve more, but in the meantime, people should try their best to DO more.

Insulating your home well, beyond well and to the best of your abilities, is an investment that pays in so many ways. You will enjoy much more comfort, save way more money, and add less to the burden of carbon emissions than just sticking with the bare code minimums. Some people might feel great and happy about supporting their local gas and electricity utilities above and beyond their current (no pun intended) contributions, but there are some who might like to rethink this donation strategy. Insulation pays. Retrofitting can and should be accomplished, but if you are in the ideal situation of building from scratch, you can make all the right decisions from day one and never have a mess to clean up down the road.